|Church in Transition|
Posted April 19, 2005 at 3:42 p.m. CDT
The Vatican's enforcer: A profile of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger
By John L. Allen Jr.
First published in National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999.
Cardinal Joseph Alois Ratzinger was born in rural Bavaria on April 16, 1927. Perhaps it is fate that the day was Holy Saturday and his parents were Joseph and Mary -- eerie foreshadowing for a child who would grow up to become a stark sign of contradiction in the world's largest Christian church.
Others believe Ratzinger will be remembered as the architect of John Paul's internal Kulturkampf, intimidating and punishing thinkers in order to restore a model of church -- clerical, dogmatic and rule-bound -- many hoped had been swept away by the Second Vatican Council, the 1962-65 assembly of bishops that sought to renew Catholicism and open it to the world. Ratzinger's campaign bears comparison to the anti-modernist drive in the early part of the century or Pius XII's crackdown in the 1950s, critics say, but is even more disheartening because it followed a moment of such optimism and new life.
At the most basic level, many Catholics cannot escape the sense that Ratzinger's exercise of ecclesial power is not what Jesus had in mind.
Beneath the competing analyses and divergent views, this much is certain: Ratzinger has drawn lines in the sand and wielded the tools of his office on many who cross those lines. Whether necessary prophylaxis or a naked power play, his efforts to curb dissent have left the church more bruised, more divided, than at any point since the close of Vatican II.
Those divisions have made Ratzinger a lightning rod. An anecdote from the mid-1980s underscores the point.
In May 1985, Ratzinger notified Franciscan Fr. Leonardo Boff that he was to be silenced. Boff, a Brazilian, was a leading figure in liberation theology, a Third World theological movement that seeks to place the church on the side of the poor. Boff accepted Ratzinger's verdict and withdrew to a Franciscan monastery in Petrópolis, outside Rio de Janeiro.
Some days later, a sympathetic Brazilian bishop visited Boff to make an unusual proposal: Boff should study all of Ratzinger's writings, including the just-published Ratzinger Report (a book-length interview with an Italian journalist in which Ratzinger voiced gloomy views of church and world), and then draw up an indictment accusing the cardinal of heresy. It would be a theological form of fighting fire with fire.
The conversation was reported by Harvard theologian Harvey Cox in his 1988 book on the Boff case. According to Cox, Boff said he wouldn't subject anyone else to the kind of inquiry he had faced.
Nevertheless, the fact that a Catholic bishop could seriously envision pressing charges of heresy against the church's top doctrinal officer -- even if it was more a political gambit than a sober theological judgment -- illustrates Ratzinger's remarkable power to polarize. "
His record includes:
Indeed, it would be difficult to find a Catholic controversy in the past 20 years that did not somehow involve Joseph Ratzinger. Part of that is the nature of the job, but no other 20th-century prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- perhaps none ever -- has enjoyed Ratzinger's high profile or his centrality to the life of the church. He and John Paul are men who believe that ideas count, and Ratzinger has prosecuted what he considers dangerous ideas with vigor. Whether his tactics and ironclad sense of certainty are more dangerous than the ideas he has attempted to suppress is a question that cuts to the core of some of the deepest divisions in the church.
After extensive interviews with leading Catholics, both friends and foes of Ratzinger from the United States and abroad, and after digesting thousands of pages of his writings and writings about him, three key insights about Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- Ratzinger the Vatican official, if not the man -- seemed to surface repeatedly:
It's important to try to understand Ratzinger on his own terms, not merely as a historical exercise, but because believers who see the church as he does -- "Ratzinger Catholics" -- are likely to be a force long after the cardinal himself is gone.
* * *
The year was 1987, and Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio was not in the best frame of mind for a reunion in Rome with his mentor and old friend, Joseph Ratzinger.
Fessio had sought out Ratzinger when the latter was a professor of dogmatic theology in Regensburg, Germany, in the 1970s, and under his direction wrote a dissertation on Hans Urs von Balthasar (a Swiss Catholic philosopher/theologian, and a hero to those who believe that liberals hijacked the church on a false reading of Vatican II).
The two men stayed in touch after Fessio returned to the United States and began working at the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco. Fessio's pugnacious style did not always endear him to his colleagues, and by 1987 he had been canned as the director of the university's St. Ignatius Institute.
Fessio was still director of the Ignatius Press, a publishing house. Its signature title was The Ratzinger Report, which sold 50,000 copies for the press.
The university had previously decided it didn't want to be affiliated with Ignatius Press, which likewise had no ties to the San Francisco archdiocese. That left Fessio to explain to Ratzinger that his publishing house -- the one to whom the cardinal had signed over all his American rights -- had no structural ties to the Catholic church at all.
Ratzinger, according to Fessio, listened sympathetically to the story, including Fessio's decision to incorporate separately from both the university and the archdiocese. At the end, Ratzinger's eyes twinkled as he said: "Ah, because of this double independence, you can remain orthodox."
As a joke, the remark works better in German, but it speaks volumes about Ratzinger the man: his graciousness, his quick wit and, clearly, his concern with orthodoxy.
Joseph Ratzinger is, by most accounts, a charmer in person. The silver hair and dark eyes that look so piercing in photographs have a different effect up close; he seems more avuncular, almost frumpy, with a coy smile. Yet he is also reserved, often preferring to use the formal German term Sie rather than the familiar du in conversation, even with people he's known for decades. Friends say Ratzinger has a wry sense of humor.
He is, above all, an intellectual. He completed his doctoral work in Germany on Augustine in 1953, then published his postdoctoral dissertation on Bonaventure in 1957.
He made the circuit of famous German theological faculties, receiving appointments in Bonn in 1959, Münster in 1963, Tübingen in 1966 and Regensburg in 1969. He was a peritus, or theological adviser at Vatican II. Ratzinger's area was systematic theology, and he's said to believe his best writing was on the subject of eschatology (the doctrine of the last things).
Paul VI made him archbishop of Munich in 1977, and on Nov. 25, 1981, John Paul II brought him to Rome as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith -- formerly known as the Holy Office and before that as the Holy Inquisition.
Virtually everyone concedes that Ratzinger is a trenchant thinker. "I think most theologians would find him a delightful dialogue partner -- if he didn't have the bureaucratic power to silence them or get them fired," said Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, who interviewed Ratzinger for his 1996 book Inside the Vatican.
Former students and colleagues are full of praise. "He is an extraordinarily refined, calm and open-minded person," said Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco, who worked on Ratzinger's staff in the early 1980s. "He can listen and synthesize a group of people's thought and find much of value in almost anything that is said. He has the uncanny ability to articulate those things we meant but forgot to say," Levada told NCR in February.
Ratzinger is also, by most accounts, genuinely pious. Those who have traveled with him tell stories of watching him steal away to pray the breviary. The liturgy is an abiding concern for him. Ratzinger raised eyebrows when he said in 1997 that the way Paul VI imposed the new Mass after Vatican II created a "tragic breach" in the tradition.
"I am convinced that the crisis in the church that we are experiencing today is to a large extent due to the disintegration of the liturgy ..." he wrote, arguing that too much about the new rite had been dreamed up at the desks of experts and forced on the church. In a 1998 interview, he said he hoped for a new generation of bishops who would restore Latin to the liturgy and curb the "wild excesses" of the post-conciliar era.
Such plain-spoken comments outrage some, but Vaticanologists give Ratzinger credit for having the courage of his convictions. It is a refreshing contrast, they say, from the ambiguous diplomatic language in which curialists normally couch their pronouncements.
His bluntness is more than a matter of personal style. It reflects Ratzinger's deep commitment to -- some might say, obsession with -- truth.
To stand for absolute truths
Under Hitler, Ratzinger says he watched the Nazis twist and distort the truth. Their lies about Jews, about genetics, were more than academic exercises. People died by the millions because of them. The church's service to society, Ratzinger concluded, is to stand for absolute truths that function as boundary markers: Move about within these limits, but outside them lies disaster.
Later reflection on the Nazi experience also left Ratzinger with a conviction that theology must either bind itself to the church, with its creed and teaching authority, or it becomes the plaything of outside forces -- the state in a totalitarian system or secular culture in Western liberal democracies. In a widely noted 1986 lecture in Toronto, Ratzinger put it this way: "A church without theology impoverishes and blinds, while a churchless theology melts away into caprice."
The war years likewise gave Ratzinger a strong sense of the "otherness" of the church, a contrarian impulse that to be Christian is to resist the prevailing social current. Ratzinger once expressed the point in typically pithy fashion: "Where there is no dualism, there is totalitarianism." He meant that where the church does not offer an alternative value system, where it sells out to the state or the culture, it gives up its ability to protect freedom. It's an outlook that reflects the experience of oppression, both under the Nazis and later under the communists who harassed Ratzinger's Catholic colleagues and friends in East Germany.
His analysis is, of course, open to criticism on many levels. For one thing, the alleged possession of eternal truth hardly immunized German-speaking Catholics against fascism; it was the Catholic bishops of Austria, for example, who instructed their flocks to vote in favor of Anschluss with Hitler.
For another, it's a far cry from recognizing the immutability of basic truths -- that genocide is evil, for instance -- to insisting upon very specific claims such as the impossibility of ordaining women. The way Ratzinger seems to slip so easily from one to the other has led to charges that he obscures a "hierarchy" of truths, lumping foundational principles together with highly debatable hypotheses derived from those principles, and then striking a "take it or leave it" stance with respect to the whole set.
The approach has been derided as "papal fundamentalism" by Jesuit Fr. John Coleman, a sociologist and theologian at Loyola Marymount University, and as "magisterial maximalism" by Fr. Richard McCormick, a moral theologian at Notre Dame. This approach is embodied in such documents as the 1990 "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian," where Ratzinger demands assent to the magisterium even when its statements aren't proclaimed as infallible, such as the ban on women priests; asserts that the magisterium can authoritatively interpret the natural law, in contrast to Curran and others who believe it should be open to reasoned debate; and says that the documents of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are covered by the pope's magisterium.
Ratzinger has suggested that those who seek to alter church teaching on what he regards as matters of revelation are attempting to substitute raw political power for God's will. It's a step he believes reaches its logical end in tyranny.
Fessio puts the point succinctly: "The Nazis helped him understand the liberal mind. Liberals are as closed to genuine dialogue as fascists."
Only by grasping this core conviction, that slavery begins when power dislodges truth, is it possible to understand how Ratzinger's supporters can insist he has not been a repressive force. Far from it, they say -- he has simply marked off the intellectual boundaries beyond which the church loses itself and imperils freedom.
"I do not believe any credible case could be made for him as an authoritarian," said Dominican Fr. Augustine Di Noia, theological adviser for the U.S. bishops conference. "Faith is not the suppression of intelligence, but its exaltation. The fundamental divide between dissenting or revisionist theologians and the mode of John Paul II and Ratzinger lies along this fault. Ratzinger is stating points which would have been totally noncontroversial even 50 years ago," Di Noia said.
Di Noia and others note that Ratzinger has never attempted to impose his own theological system on the church. He is certainly not trying to force Thomism down anyone's throat, Di Noia observes, since Ratzinger himself is an Augustinian. On the rare occasions when he has had to rein someone in, Di Noia says, it is because "a clear line in the sand" was crossed.
For those who have found themselves on the wrong side of one of those lines, however, Ratzinger's logic doesn't always seem so clear.
* * *
Fr. Charles Curran says he remembers how he first got wind that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith might be gunning for him.
While he was teaching moral theology at the Catholic University of America in Washington -- where he intended to end his career -- Curran got a cryptic letter from a colleague and mentor, the legendary moral theologian Fr. Joseph Fuchs, then living in Rome.
Fuchs' letter said: "On the basis of certain facts, I have the impression that someone here might be interested in you."
Curran said he eventually learned what Fuchs' "certain facts" were. He was talking about a phone call from the librarian at Gregorian University, who had asked Fuchs to return some books by Curran he had checked out. The Holy Office, the librarian said, was looking for them. By the way, the librarian asked, did Fuchs have anything else by Curran? The Holy Office would probably want those, too.
It was not a good sign.
Later, Curran said, he noticed that his work began to show up in footnotes of articles written by a well-known consultor for the congregation. Soon he was notified that his job at the Catholic University of America might be in jeopardy, and what would become one of the highest profile cases of Ratzinger's term had begun. (Curran's case was actually opened by Ratzinger's predecessor at the congregation, Croatian Cardinal Franjo Seper.)
Curran, who led the American resistance to Humanae Vitae in the late 1960s, lost his license to teach Catholic theology after an exchange of letters with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, culminating in an "informal" meeting with Ratzinger in Rome on March 8, 1986, (the back-and-forth correspondence is printed in Curran's book Faithful Dissent). Curran was removed from his position at Catholic University in January 1987. He filed suit, but the judge in the case declined to overrule the university. Today, Curran teaches at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"Both authority and theologians are trying to be faithful, are striving for the truth," Curran told NCR. "It's not a matter of authority versus conscience. Truth is the third term, and to that extent Ratzinger is right. The problem is that he has too readily identified the truth with what the magisterium has taught at a given moment. The Holy Office cannot have a copyright on what it means to be Catholic," Curran said.
The political question
Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley of Yale, president-elect of the Catholic Theological Society of America, is likewise skeptical of the claim that those seeking change in certain teachings or practices see the church only in political terms.
"Who could possibly say that the church is not a political organization? It's not merely political, but unless we get its political criteria straight it's not going to be what it should be," Farley told NCR.
In at least two ways, Ratzinger critics believe the cardinal has himself placed politics above truth. Curran says that's been the case with his selection of targets. "If you were really going to go after liberation theologians in the 1980s, you would have gone after Juan Luis Segundo (from Uruguay), not Boff (from Brazil). But he wanted to target Brazil, because it's a big, influential church.
"The same with me. There were plenty of dissenters from Humanae Vitae, but they target me because the U.S. church is rich and powerful and they want to send a message. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that these were political calculations."
Others have spotted politics in the evolution of Ratzinger's own theological positions. In 1965, for example, Ratzinger in a Concilium article called national episcopal conferences "the best means of concrete plurality in unity," arguing that they're rooted in the ancient church. As prefect, however, Ratzinger has insisted that episcopal conferences have no such status; a bishop can teach in his own diocese and all the bishops together can teach in a council, but there's nothing in between. That was the thrust of the recent papal document Apostolos Suos.
Why the shift? NCR's late Vatican affairs correspondent Peter Hebblethwaite suggested in 1986 that it's an instance of Ratzinger using theology ideologically. It's much easier to cow an individual bishop than a strong conference, so by reducing the power of conferences, Ratzinger boosts his own.
Ratzinger's defenders argue that his image as a harsh inquisitor is based on a handful of highly publicized cases. More often, they say, concerns about a theologian's work are resolved quietly and cooperatively. Others close to Ratzinger argue that the congregation sometimes exercises a calming influence when a bishop or group demands action.
Curran says it's a mistake to conclude that the only people targeted by the congregation are those whose cases wind up in the media. "The number of cases he's opened has been staggering. There are other people you don't hear about that they've harassed," he said. "Directly I know of five others in the United States that have not become public, and indirectly many more."
The theological 'chill factor'
"The type of theologians most subject to this pressure today are those who are priests, religious or employed in seminaries," Reese said.
Some critics have compared this "chill factor" to the anti-modernist drive of Pius X in the first decade of the 20th century. In both cases, they argue, conservative popes set out to stem theological currents that had developed under their moderate predecessors. The pastoral and intellectual toll exacted by the anti-modernist drive, by most accounts, was vast.
"Everything went underground," said Jay Dolan, a church history expert at Notre Dame. "Good work was still being done, but it was done out of public view -- in liturgy, in scripture studies. Seminarians coming up through the system weren't learning anything creative. It wasn't exactly brain rot, but it was an unhealthy situation."
Dolan says the more exact parallel to the Ratzinger campaign may be with what happened under Pius XII after the publication of Humani Generis in 1950. That encyclical, condemning modernizing tendencies in theology, led to the silencing or intimidation of some of the leading theologians of the time, such as the American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, widely regarded as the driving force behind Vatican II's document on religious liberty. Many of the same thinkers would later emerge as key advisers at the council.
Theologians sympathetic to Ratzinger scoff at suggestions of a similar "chill factor" today. Michael Waldstein, an Austrian with degrees in biblical scholarship and theology who taught at the University of Notre Dame for several years in the 1990s, said he didn't see evidence of a repressive climate there.
"Observing [Fr.] Richard McBrien [professor of theology] and [Fr.] Dick McCormick reasonably closely, I don't think they were in the least crimped or limited by what was done to Charlie Curran, for example. McBrien proposed that Curran be hired at Notre Dame. In the new Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Curran wrote the article on contraception.
"In actual fact, taking these guys as examples, I don't see that their action has been limited by what was imposed," said Waldstein, who got to know Ratzinger in the 1980s and later served on the special 11-man working group that put the American lectionary in its final form (NCR, Sept. 25, 1998).
Dolan believes Ratzinger's efforts to curb dissent have been "much less sweeping, less severe" than those under Pius X. "There is a tightening up on the side of Rome, but the impact is far less pervasive" -- in part, Dolan said, because so much Catholic theology is being done outside Catholic institutions today.
"The mistake the Vatican makes is to not realize that the theological community is a self-correcting community of scholars, like any other discipline," Reese said. "Often the worst thing the Vatican can do is to condemn a theologian, because no one will criticize that theologian for fear of looking like a toady of the Vatican."
Reese mentioned the position on infallibility of Hans Küng, the liberal Swiss theologian and frequent Ratzinger critic, and certain elements in liberation theology as examples.
American Jesuit Fr. John Rock, who worked for Ratzinger from 1990 to 1995, told NCR that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is concerned with the well-being of the whole Catholic faithful and their right to hear authentic doctrine from those who teach in the church's name. Theologians aren't the only ones whose rights have to be considered, he said.
Rock, who now teaches at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, argued that some Catholics reduce everything to debatable opinion. "But as German theologian Leo Scheffczyk once put it, when Rome intervenes, it does so foremost in the manner of the fisherman and not that of the intellectual," Rock said.
"In the U.S. we have the principle of civilian control over the military; in the church we have pastoral authority even over theologians."
It's hard to believe now, but Ratzinger was once a theological Young Turk himself, pushing against the limits of ecclesial authority. Lots of church history in the past 30 years can be summed up in this transition from Ratzinger the Vatican II reformer to Ratzinger the congregation prefect.
* * *
In his 1998 book The Interrupted Leap, Auxiliary Bishop Helmut Krätzl of Vienna, Austria, paints a picture of the heady days of Vatican II when he was a young seminarian living in the Anima, the German-language residence in Rome. Walking the corridors of the Anima in those days was Joseph Ratzinger, then a fiery young professor of dogmatic theology, present at the council as a peritus to one of the most powerful prelates in the church.
To Krätzl and his fellow seminarians, Ratzinger was a titan. Krätzl now writes about Ratzinger the way a man might mention an older brother with whom he's no longer on speaking terms -- he still remembers that youthful hero worship, but it's tinged with adult regret.
Ratzinger was the chief adviser for Cardinal Joseph Frings, the aging cardinal of Cologne, Germany. Frings was positioned to be a key figure even before the first session of Vatican II began. As a moderate, his support for change would carry extra credibility; and as the president of the German bishops conference, he was well-known in episcopal conferences throughout the Third World because of the German church's extensive foreign aid (made possible by the church tax).
Ratzinger himself has played down his role, but Krätzl says his importance to Frings is impossible to overstate. The cardinal was nearly blind by 1962, the year Vatican II opened and he relied on Ratzinger and another aide to summarize each day's paperwork and speeches, as well as to draft his interventions.
'Scandal to the world'
Krätzl, who believes the progressive energy generated by Vatican II has been stifled under John Paul, sums up his observations of Ratzinger at the council this way: "No one would have suspected that Joseph Ratzinger, who inserted himself so energetically for a renewed vision of the church and thus struggled against the one-sided exercise of power by the curia, would later become himself a high-ranking curial cardinal and prefect of the CDF."
Krätzl is hardly alone in that perception. The apparent shift in Ratzinger from leading progressive in 1962 to architect of the restoration today, has fueled accusations of inconsistency at best and hypocritical careerism at worst.
The standard explanation is that Ratzinger was horrified by the German student revolutions of 1968, and has retreated into an increasingly conservative stance. That thesis has been advanced by Küng.
A surprising consensus exists among those who have followed Ratzinger closely, however -- both critics and admirers -- that the differences in Ratzinger before and after the council have been exaggerated. Understanding this consensus helps explain how widely differing interpretations of Vatican II have remained in tension for the past 35 years.
The politics of the council often boiled down to a basic decision for or against change, with the curia struggling to maintain a status quo that had prevailed more or less intact since the Council of Trent.
In the much larger pro-change camp, Curran and others identify at least two differing impulses. The first is the aggiornamento movement, whose leading idea was an embrace of the modern world. For that group -- including Küng, French ecclesiologist Yves Congar, and German systematic theologian Karl Rahner -- the fundamental conciliar text is Gaudium et Spes, the document on the church in the modern world, with its soaring language about integrating the joys and hope, the grief and anguish, of humanity into what it means to be Christian.
A return to sources
It is the ressourcement group, Curran says, with which Ratzinger most identified himself. After the council, each faction launched its own journal -- Concilium for the aggiornamento movement, Communio for the ressourcement circle. Both groups wanted to break the church out of its neo-scholastic rut, but the ressourcement circle wanted change much more restrictively grounded in the earlier stages of the tradition. It was always suspicious of modernity and cautious about new theological currents -- as is Ratzinger today. "In that sense Ratzinger really hasn't changed that much," Curran said.
Di Noia agreed. "What I believe has happened since the council is that revisionist theology has made aggiornamento primary over the ressourcement, which was really the main current before the council. I do not see any reversal in Ratzinger or the pope."
In many ways, this same division -- between the aggiornamento and the ressourcement impulses -- runs through the church today, and it helps explain why Catholics can be equally passionate about their commitment to the council, can use the same conciliar language and point to the same documents, and still reach such opposing conclusions. To put it simplistically, the touchstone for aggiornamento Catholics, the lens through which they read the council, is looking forward to a new kind of church to be fashioned by integrating the best insights of the modern age; for ressourcement Catholics, the key is looking back, rediscovering the tradition and living it anew. They are not mutually exclusive, but they tend to emphasize different dimensions of an issue.
On very basic questions, the two impulses can coincide, as they did on the desirability of a new order for the Mass to replace the Tridentine rite. But at the level of detail -- how much Latin is too much, which way the altar should face, what kind of music is appropriate, and so on -- such consensus dissipates. Both sides feel validated by Vatican II, both feel the other is guilty of selective emphasis in their reading of the council's texts.
'A lot left undefined'
Di Noia contends that Ratzinger has followed through on his criticism of the Holy Office during the council. "This was one of the most secretive institutions in the church for hundreds of years. It cannot be underestimated that he opened it up," Di Noia said.
"Its procedures, its staff, are all now a matter of public record. In the cloud of controversy that surrounds him that has sometimes been forgotten. He has transformed it into a very modern office."
That argument is strenuously rejected by critics such as Sacred Heart Fr. Paul Collins, an Australian currently under investigation for his book Papal Power. Collins charges that procedures used by the congregation fail to meet "the most basic standards of human rights," such as the right to know one's accuser or even to be notified that an inquiry is under way.
Waldstein, however, said Ratzinger's embrace of Vatican II is so extensive that it has earned him enemies on the Catholic right. During Waldstein's undergraduate days in the 1980s at Thomas Aquinas College, a bastion of conservative Catholicism in Santa Paula, Calif., he said he ran into right-wing dissent directed toward Ratzinger and the pope, because both were too associated with the council.
"There was a much more critical assessment of Ratzinger and John Paul II, for buying into personalism and the liberalism associated with that, as opposed to neo-Thomism," Waldstein said.
In this regard, Ratzinger and John Paul stand together -- as they do on most things. The pope trusts Ratzinger and has made his office the most powerful in the Vatican.
"It wasn't that way when Ratzinger took over," Reese said. "Any document dealing with doctrine or teaching has to be cleared by Ratzinger, and that means practically everything."
Vatican sources say that Ratzinger is frequently consulted on matters that aren't strictly doctrinal. He serves on the Congregation for Bishops, and is widely believed to exercise an informal veto over appointments.
He and the pope have disagreed. By most accounts, Ratzinger was harder on liberation theology than John Paul, who sympathized with its critique of the cruelties of capitalism. There is also a temperamental difference. The pope is, observers say, an optimist with a huge mystical streak, while Ratzinger has often suggested that Christianity may need to become smaller and less culturally significant in order to remain faithful.
Such contrasts led George Weigel, a syndicated Catholic columnist, to note the irony "that two men who work so well together should have such different visions of the future."
Ratzinger and John Paul share at least this much in terms of what they expect of the future, however: They both expect to be vindicated by it.
* * *
In graduate school in the 1950s, Ratzinger found himself fishing around for a topic for his Habilitationsschrift, the book-length contribution to research a German doctoral student has to complete after his dissertation. His mentor, professor Gottlieb Söhngen, suggested that he work on St. Bonaventure.
Ratzinger liked the idea, and produced a daring thesis on revelation. He showed that according to Bonaventure, words on a page mean nothing without someone to interpret them. Ratzinger saw this insight as a refutation of Luther's sola scriptura principle, but his superiors accused him -- in what many cannot help but see today as a supreme irony -- of relativism. Ratzinger seemed to be saying that scripture could mean different things to different people!
The work was rejected.
Ratzinger then focused on Bonaventure's conflict with the "Spiritual Franciscans." That branch of the Franciscan movement had been inspired by the apocalyptic visionary Joachim of Fiore to expect a third age of history, an era of the Holy Spirit, in which the poor would be liberated and the rich torn down. Bonaventure, Ratzinger argued, rejected this expectation of a dramatic intervention by God inside human history.
The reign of God, in other words, had to wait for the next world. Ratzinger put it this way: Orthodox belief "tears eschatology apart from history."
Thus when Ratzinger began investigating liberation theology in the 1980s, he thought it had a familiar ring. The liberation theologians too, Ratzinger felt, wanted redemption inside history, and he saw their hopes as equally false.
In taking on liberation theology, Ratzinger saw himself picking up Bonaventure's argument against the Spiritual Franciscans from several hundred years before (he also, according to friends, saw echoes of the Marxist-inspired 1968 student revolts in liberation theology).
Thinking for the long run
"I think he and John Paul are thinking very much in the long run," Waldstein said. "In the present, the fronts of discussion are often very hard. It isn't easy to sway people's minds," he said.
"I've yet to meet a theologian who said before Humanae Vitae (the 1968 papal document that reiterated the ban on birth control) I was in favor of contraception, but then I changed my mind. That's not the kind of response they're looking for. In the long run, when some of the controversies of the present are forgotten, then you can expect an impact."
As a case in point, Waldstein looks to Jansenism, a theological movement premised on certain views of grace and freedom popular in 17th-century Europe. "At the time, papal condemnations did not have the effect of convincing the theologians in Paris to change their minds," Waldstein said. "But when people eventually had the wherewithal to oppose it, they had the papal documents in place. Today Jansenism is not a viable force."
Reese argues that a sober perusal of church history does not warrant such confidence.
"The record of the Vatican in this area is not very good, considering that many theologians condemned in the past now are recognized as great thinkers and loyal churchmen," Reese said, such as Congar and Murray. "There's a clear historical record of the Vatican condemning people and later having to say, 'Sorry, they're really fine theologians.' "
Anyway, Reese says Ratzinger has a crisis on his hands in the present. Reese wrote in Inside the Vatican that the relationship between the papacy and theologians today is worse than at any time since the Reformation.
On this point, even Waldstein concedes a problem. "It's a really unfortunate thing that a high level of irritation among many academic theologians has developed," Waldstein said. "I saw it when I was at Notre Dame. It would have helped a lot if Ratzinger had reached out more."
Ratzinger believes he has reached out. During a mid-February visit to California for a consultation with bishops from the United States, Canada and Oceania, he ticked off several examples of consultation:
"We have begun since the 1970s the symposia, great assemblies about important issues of theology and important problems of the time. ... We also as far as possible have good contact with the bishops conferences as mediators between the Holy See and the bishops, because not only the Holy Father but the bishops are the magisterium," Ratzinger said.
"For example we held some years ago a very interesting meeting with the Indian bishops. We thought it is difficult for us as Western people to intervene in the reflection of the Indian theologians. ... I think this is a good way to have peace in the church."
(Ratzinger turned down requests for an interview for this article, but had an aide invite an NCR reporter to a news conference after the consultation in Menlo Park, Calif.)
The Indian bishops
Sr. Farley, who said she admires Ratzinger as a theologian, nevertheless said his attempts at consultation fall short in part because the range of voices he's hearing is too narrow. "I don't know anyone the CDF has consulted personally," she said. "They've had conferences on women, for example, but nobody who has any feminist concerns was invited to speak.
"It's not a concerted effort to exclude people," Farley said, "but rather a failure to bring people in." She suggested inviting professional societies such as the Catholic Theological Society of America, the Catholic Biblical Association and the Canon Law Society to send representatives to serve on consultative groups.
A formal instrument of consultation does exist in the International Theological Commission, an innovation of Paul VI that was supposed to provide the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with access to the world's leading theological advisers. Di Noia says the body is still "hugely, hugely important." Curran disagrees. "The International Theological Commission has been a joke because of the kinds of people appointed, who by definition will be all safe people," he said.
"Faithful Catholics do want to surrender to authority," Farley said. "But it's so clear to most people that not all voices are heard. If there is to be a center to speak for the church, its credibility depends in part on whether it has listened to the faithful."
* * *
Ratzinger is cosmopolitan, fluent in at least four languages and with a reading knowledge of several others, but he is also a man of simple routine. For example, for most of his 18 years in Rome he has set off on foot each morning to work, leaving his apartment above the last stop of the city's No. 64 bus and arriving at his office in the Piazza Sant'Uffizio promptly at 9 a.m.
Ratzinger walks alone in a simple cassock, usually unnoticed amid the gaggles of clerics that dot the area around the Vatican. Stories abound of tourists stopping him for directions or asking him questions about the pope and St. Peter's, having no idea who they were talking to.
To his friends, this is evidence of Ratzinger's humility. But his ability to blend in makes another point, too: Despite his high profile in the church's intellectual and professional classes, to the vast majority of the world's one billion Catholics, Joseph Ratzinger is just another face in the crowd.
This point has led some to wonder if the intense debate that swirls around Ratzinger, the media attention and the hype, exaggerates his real importance. The average Catholic in an American (or Guatemalan, or Sri Lankan) parish or faith-sharing group, this argument runs, doesn't know and doesn't care what a septuagenarian prelate in Rome thinks. Moreover, there's no reason why they should: If the seismic shift at Vatican II was to identify the church as the whole people of God, why continue to fixate on curial elites like Ratzinger? Paying attention to them, even in the form of disagreement, simply reinforces their claims to power.
Wouldn't it be more productive to embrace the new forms of church coming to life -- the small Christian communities, the women's eucharistic celebrations, the work for peace and justice being carried out in a thousand different centers of energy and daring -- rather than forever lamenting the inadequacies of the institution?
"It would be great if we had a church where one could simply dismiss what inquisitors like Ratzinger say and do, but that's not Catholicism today," Collins said. "Too many real people are being hurt by his power plays, and somebody has to speak on their behalf. If our commitment to the marginalized means anything, it has to apply to the marginalized inside the church. That means challenging the likes of Ratzinger when they refuse to ordain women or when they silence theologians or in other ways try to squelch the gospel."
Despite what some far-distant evolution may bring, Collins and others argue that for the foreseeable future bishops appointed by Rome will still make decisions about parishes and schools and other institutions all over the world. They will hire and fire, control budgets, approve transfers and demotions, issue and withdraw approval for textbooks and liturgical practices, decide which political causes are worth spending resources on, and in scores of other ways exercise power that affects the lives of millions of people.
To the extent Ratzinger shapes how those decisions are made, he matters. Perhaps it is not the church as it should be, but that's how it is.
There may, however, be an even more trenchant argument for paying attention to Ratzinger. Precisely because he is such a polarizing force, he may be a test case for the possibility of common ground. Since opinions about Ratzinger tend to reflect one's deepest convictions about the church, if the Catholics most invested in church politics could meet each other halfway about Ratzinger, perhaps there's hope for dialogue on other matters.
Sources told NCR that such a conversation would raise some hard questions all around. For Ratzinger's liberal critics in the First World, several challenges surfaced in the reporting. Does he have a point, for example, about truth? As sons and daughters of consumer culture conditioned to seek our own gratification, perhaps we do repress or rationalize truths that get in our way. Similarly, in the rush to embrace modernity after Vatican II, has the church indeed suppressed or forgotten some things of value -- is there a need for a careful "restoration," not as a political program, but a recovery of traditions that nurtured the religious imagination of Catholics for two millennia?
Finally, is Ratzinger right that belonging to a disparate, global family of faith means that we can't always reshape the church in our image -- in the inevitable tension between fidelity to one's own vision and not rupturing the community, does being Catholic sometimes mean picking the latter?
On the other side, can Ratzinger's conservative admirers admit that the careers he's derailed, the views he's censured, do not belong -- and never did -- to real enemies of the faith? That the forms of symbolic violence that are the tools of Ratzinger's profession, the excommunications and censures and inquisitorial procedures, are in the end Catholic versions of the same abuses Jesus condemned in the religious authorities of his time? Can conservatives see the poignancy of this question: If truth is attractive and the faith is compelling, why do we need heresy-hunters at all?
"One could envision a really important dialogue about the issues surrounding Ratzinger," Reese said. "The question is whether it could penetrate all the polemics -- and whether Ratzinger himself would allow it to happen, or whether he would shut it down by policing the conversation."
* * *
There is still the possibility, of course, that Ratzinger will not end his career as the hierarchy's No. 2 man. At some point there will be another conclave, and Ratzinger, if he's still around, will be in the running for the top job. Could he become pope?
Fessio thinks it could happen. "If the present pope died suddenly, they might want an older person for interim continuity," he said. "Ratzinger has many abilities the rest of the cardinals are aware of -- his command of languages, his knowledge of cultures, his knowledge of the faith."
Reese, however, thinks it unlikely. For one thing, Ratzinger would be almost 75, and he doesn't think the cardinals will elect someone so close to the official retirement age. Anyway, Ratzinger's "become too controversial. They will look for someone who can heal divisions rather than exacerbate them," Reese said. He added, "I could be wrong."
Assuming Ratzinger's tenure in the Vatican ends with his present job, what is one to make of it? Perhaps Waldstein is right that the battle lines are too hardened in the present for any definitive judgment. Maybe it will take the perspective that comes only with time to allow observers to get past the polemics and appreciate his real impact on the church.
Jacques Maritain once said, "The important thing is not to be a success. The important thing is to be in history bearing the witness." In that light, perhaps Ratzinger will come to be judged positively. He has borne a consistent witness, stood fast for his own vision -- which he would argue is the vision of Christ. It is with such considerations in view that Fessio boldly predicts Ratzinger will be remembered as "one of the great saints of our time."
Yet the stark divisions, the ruptures in the church Ratzinger has helped to create these past 18 years must also be part of his legacy. Many Catholics can't help thinking it could all have been different. The same truths could have been presented, the same errors exposed, in more pastoral fashion. The wounds could have been less frequent, less deep, quicker to heal.
In his acclaimed biography of Robert Kennedy, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. described standing at Kennedy's funeral and watching Chicago Mayor Richard Daley and Yippie activist Tom Hayden, such bitter enemies in that summer of 1968, quietly sobbing in different corners. Schlesinger wrote that a friend was reminded of a line from Pascal: "A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once."
If that's the standard, then despite his intellect, his piety, his sense of purpose, all that makes him remarkable, history may not be so kind to Joseph Ratzinger after all.
First published in National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1999.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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